India's Modi Should Speak English, Think National

Narendra Modi
Narendra Modi, who will be the next prime minister of India, wears a garland presented to him by his supporters Amit Dave/Reuters

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is much more fluent in English than most people assume. He rarely speaks the language in public or in private meetings, and seems to be encouraging his cabinet to make Hindi the language of ministerial discourse. "He's not comfortable in English unless he is making a prepared speech," his supporters often say.

Yet 13 years ago, three days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US, he was ad-libbing confidently and powerfully in English for a recording of what was then Star TV's "Big Fight" television programme during a sensitive and often-heated debate on the question: "Is Islam now the driving force of terrorism?" He was also not averse to being shouted at, even by a foreign journalist, as I discovered asking questions alongside the anchor.

Modi presented his arguments in a powerful and passionate but reasoned way , and the event triggered a line of thought that here was a man with all the potential needed to become India's next big leader. At the time, he was a national secretary of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but was sent back to his home state of Gujarat three weeks later to be chief minister. The Godhra riots happened the following February , putting him out of most people's reckoning as an acceptable chief minister, let alone a national politician.

There was a lot of shouting in the television studio. "He wouldn't stop bellowing out his single-minded message in decibels that the sound system fortunately muted for television viewers, and I was trying to ask a question—all of which got lost in a fade-out for adverts," I wrote a few months after the show. "At the end of the program, we laughed and he asked if he'd spoken enough in English (regrettably I do not speak Hindi) for me to know what he was on about".

He hadn't because his opening remarks were all in Hindi and he only broke into fluent but rather heavily accented English later. He gave the impression of a driven and (sometimes) charming politician—a potent mixture for the political leader that he duly became.

The verbal fighting (now viewable on YouTube) started when, speaking passionately in Hindi, Modi argued that Islam had "many good aspects", but that conflict was beginning because of the argument that "my higher than yours, and until you take refuge in mine you will not get salvation."

That led to a noisy clash with Dr Rafiq Zakaria, an elderly Islamic scholar and Congress politician, who tried to tone down the inference to Islamic terrorism and argued that the religion's texts contained the language of peace. G. Parthasarathy, a former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan, had suggested that terrorists came from Islamic countries in a "crescent of crisis" stretching from Pakistan to Algeria. Eventually Modi called on his "Muslim friends"—a noteworthy phrase—to "understand that terrorism has damaged Islam like anything," and that they needed to "come out against the terrorist."

Modi's performance then and later seemed to suggest a new potential national leader, irrespective of whether or not one accepted his message. Unlike most politicians, he argued passionately and powerfully for what he believed in, not for some short-term personal gain far removed from policy, but out of conviction. He was a strong public speaker and was standing his ground, presenting his case with rare confidence and elan. Whether one liked it or not, he had a commanding presence. To a bystander, he looked like a logical heir to the BJP leader L. K. Advani.

That was not a popular view.

How could a man who had presided over the Godhra carnage ever win popular respect and a wide following, people asked?

Weren't Gujaratis tiring of the violence? And wasn't Modi already finished, just waiting to be edged out of his job in imminent assembly elections? The BJP , people said, could not survive as a national party if he became one of its top leaders because it would be shunned by coalition partners. So he had no future and was likely to be sent away to some remote corner of the Hindu Nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Organization) offices in Nagpur.

Modi won the assembly election and has not looked back (and his English sounded more polished in a long speech that he delivered at the start of his Vibrant Gujarat conference in January last year).

The question now is whether he can manage the complexities of governing India. Public acceptance of English, more mention of "Muslim friends", plus laughter—all evident at the TV studio in 2001—might help.

John Elliott's new book is IMPLOSION: India's Tryst with Reality (HarperCollins, India). He can be read at